Neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free

Neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free

In the next week, there are three significant remembrances in our human community. Tomorrow, 20th January America and many others remember the life of Martin Luther King. On 25th January we in Scotland and in many other places celebrate the life of Robert Burns. On 27th January in Israel and in many other places Jews and non-Jews will hold Holocaust Memorial Day to commemorate the more than 6,000,000 Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis during the 2nd Word War. These are important remembrances but each in their own way highlights the capacity of us humans to lose all reason and humanity in our treatment of one another.

Slavery is being highlighted currently due to the film 12 Years A Slave. In Scotland there is academic questioning of Scots’ involvement in the slave trade and plantation owning in the Caribbean - monuments to which are seen in the cemeteries of Glasgow and in the fine mansions of Pollockshields. Not just Glasgow of course. John Newlands was the first born child of William Newlands and Isabel Russell and was born in Bathgate at Hill Street in 1737. In the middle to late 1700's he was a landowner and slave owner in Jamaica and amassed a considerable fortune through dealing in sugar and slaves. He bequeathed money to be used in building a school in Bathgate. After several years of legal wrangling the school John Newland's Academy was built with somewhat depleted funds. Newlands' Day is well remembered but in truth it is a tainted memorial.

The inhumanity and cruelty of the slave trade is well documented. An estimated 8 to 15 million Africans reached the Americas from the 16th through to the 19th century. James Ramsay, a doctor working for several sugar plantations in St Kitts, recalled in his book, 'Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies' (1784): 'The ordinary punishments of slaves, for the common crimes of neglect, absence from work, eating the sugar cane, theft, are cart whipping, beating with a stick, sometimes to the breaking of bones, the chain, an iron crook about the neck... a ring about the ankle, and confinement in the dungeon. There have been instances of slitting of ears, breaking of limbs, so as to make amputation necessary, beating out of eyes, and castration... In short, in the place of decency, sympathy, morality, and religion; slavery produces cruelty and oppression. It is true, that the unfeeling application of the ordinary punishments ruins the constitution, and shortens the life of many a poor wretch'. The law provided slaves with virtually no protection from their masters. Sometimes slave-owners resorted to mutilating and branding their slaves. 'Stephen Bennett, once took a slave, whose name was Pinkney, and make him take him off his shirt; he then tied his hands and gave him one hundred lashes on his bare back; and all this, because he lacked three pounds of his task, which was valued at six cents'.

Martin Luther King struggled for full civil rights for the descendants of slaves in America. But there is slavery in the world today still. We hear of cases of domestic slavery in Britain which shock us. Recently a London pensioner has been convicted of trafficking and exploiting an African woman she used as a slave. Saeeda Khan hired Mrs Mruke in her native Tanzania in 2006 after she was made redundant from the hospital in Dar es Salaam run by Khan and her late husband. Khan arranged a domestic service visa and promised to pay her £21 a month into her Tanzanian bank account and £10 a month pocket money in London. Mrs Mruke, desperate to fund her daughter’s college education, agreed. But when she got to London, Khan took her passport away, forced her to sleep on the kitchen floor and gave her two slices of bread a day for food. Her clothes were kept in a garden shed. Between 0600 and midnight each day, Mrs Mruke was expected to be at the beck and call of Khan. Mrs Mruke did not get a single day off in four years.

Even within respectable families within our own time, some children usually girls, were expected to have no life of their own and look after their parents and the home without pay throughout their lives. I met people like that when I was an assistant minister in a posh area of Edinburgh. Today there is industrial scale slavery in places like Dubai and Qatar. Indian and Philippino workers are kept in poor conditions and have no access to their passports. Some would argue that the conditions of employment of poorly paid workers in Britain today amount to little better than slavery; some may have no permanency, no sick pay, holiday pay or pension entitlement.

Bad though the story of slavery is in human history for concentrated evil there is little to compare with the Nazi Holocaust. British soldiers liberated Bergen Belsen Concentration camp on 15th April 1945. I myself have met and listened to soldiers who were present there at that time. In a book entitled 'The Belsen Trial' by Raymond Phillips, published in 1949, Brigadier Glyn-Hughes is quoted in this description of the terrible scene that the British found at Bergen-Belsen: 'The conditions in the camp were really indescribable… There were various sizes of piles of corpses lying all over the camp, some in between the huts. The compounds themselves had bodies lying about in them. The gutters were full and within the huts there were uncountable numbers of bodies, some even in the same bunks as the living. Near the crematorium were signs of filled-in mass graves, and outside to the left of the bottom compound was an open pit half-full of corpses. It had just begun to be filled. Some of the huts had bunks but not many, and they were filled absolutely to overflowing with prisoners in every state of emaciation and disease. There was not room for them to lie down at full length in each hut. In the most crowded there were anything from 600 to 1000 people in accommodation which should only have taken 100'. That this happened in what was supposed to have been a Christian country in the middle of the 20th century is hard to understand. Holocaust Memorial Day is not just for Jews; it is for the Germans too; and all inhumane ideologues, for Kim Jong-Un in his terrible North Korea, and for the Russians and Chinese with their genocidal past.

And so we come to Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s national poet. His radical free thinking has impressed generations and his sentiment of a world-wide human community of equals tugs at the heart strings. But he himself was not Jesus Christ nor was he a follower of Jesus Christ. He did not heal the sick, he did not wash the feet of his friends, he did not die of a cruel judicious murder. Burns contradicted his own thinking in the way he lived. He sexually used and exploited women, often very young women. He was a great reveller and drunkard. He hobnobbed with Edinburgh society; he wanted and courted their recognition. In 1786 Burns was in financial difficulties due to his want of success in farming, and to make enough money to support a family he took up a friend's offer of work in Jamaica at a salary of £30 per annum. He was to become a book-keeper on a sugar-plantation near Port Antonio – a position that Burns himself described a year later as that of 'a poor Negro-driver'. Glasgow University academic Gerard Carruthers has accused Burns of 'harbouring a private fantasy about emigrating to Jamaica, working as a slave driver and coming home rich'. Burns changed his mind about Jamaica as the Kilmarnock edition of his poems became a success. Six years later he wrote a small poem called The Slave’s Lament which expressed his better thoughts.

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O;
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:

Everyone knows that Burns became an exciseman. Poacher turned gamekeeper. He wrote to Lord Glencairn in 1788, 'My Lord, I wish to get into the Excise: I am told that your lordship's interest will easily procure me the grant from the commissioners'. This was an unpopular job seeking out contraband and pirated alcohol and so despised by the ordinary people whom Burns extolled. Burns could flatter the nobility when he needed to. He could also contradict his own high thinking in order to earn money. Burns' love poems however beautiful cannot have been sincere because he wrote extravagantly for many different women. But we remember his finest aspirations in 'A man’s a man for a’ that' and recognise his feeling for the human and animal kingdom in the common struggle for survival. Had Burns been a Christian he would have been as successful and famous a hymn writer as Charles Wesley.

Christianity saves those who are fortunate enough to seek to practise it from the worst of our own sinful inclinations. Multiplied into societies and nations Christianity restrains the worst expressions of human cruelty and inhumanity. As the prophet Micah recognised 'He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God'. Christianity is non-discriminating as to race and colour but not to right and wrong. St Paul originally a great racist learned this after his conversion. 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus'. Rejoice that you can live your life in such light and truth.

Robert Anderson 2017

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